A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 4

Indian Pluralism

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1949 | 186,278 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of dharma: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the second part in the series called the “the bhagavata-purana”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

The word dharma, ordinarily translated as “religion” or “virtue,” is used in very different senses in the different schools and religious traditions of Indian thought. It will be useful to deal with some of the more important of these notions before the reader is introduced to the notion of dharma as explained in the Bhāgavata-purāṇa. The Mīmāṃsā-sūtra begins with an enquiry regarding the nature of dharma, and defines it as that good which is determinable only by the Vedic commands.[1] According to Śabara’s and Kumārila’s interpretation, the good that is called dharma means the Vedic sacrifices that lead to good results—the attainment of Heaven and the like. The fact that the Vedic sacrifices may bring about desirable results of various kinds can neither be perceived by the senses nor inferred from other known data: it tan be known only from the testimony of the Vedic commands and directions. Dharma, therefore, means both the good results attainable by the Vedic sacrifices and the sacrifices themselves, and, as such, it is determinable only by the Vedic injunctions. Desirable results which are attained by rational and prudent actions are not dharma: for by definition dharma means only those desirable results which are attainable by operations which are performed strictly in accordance with Vedic injunctions. But in the Vedas are described various kinds of sacrifices by the performance of which one may take revenge on his enemies by destroying them or causing grievous injuries of various kinds to them, but action causing injury to any fellow-being is undesirable, and such action cannot be dharma. Dharma in this sense has nothing to do with God, or with ordinary or customary morality, or any kind of mystical or religious fervour as we understand it now. It simply means Vedic rituals and the good results that are supposed to follow from their performances; it has but little religious or moral application; and such a dharma can only be known through scriptural injunctions[2]. It contains however just a little germ of the idea of non-injury, inasmuch as the performance of rituals for injuring others is not included within its content. Dharma also definitely rules out all kinds of emotion, mystic feeling, and exercise of intellect or thought of any description, and merely presupposes a strict loyalty to external scriptural commands; there is not the slightest trace here of any internal spiritual law, or rational will, or loyalty to God’s will. The scriptural command however is categorically imperative in some cases, whereas in others it is only conditionally imperative, i.e. conditioned by one’s desire for certain good things. Kumārila, in interpreting this idea, says that any substance (dravya), action (kriyā) or quality (guṇa) which may be utilized to produce happiness, by a particular kind of manipulation of them in accordance with Vedic commands, is called dharma[3]. Though these substances, qualities etc. may be perceived by the senses yet the fact that their manipulation in a particular ritualistic manner will produce happiness for the performer can be known only by Vedic injunctions; and it is only with regard to this knowledge that the dharma is dependent on the Vedas[4]. Doing an injury to one’s enemy may immediately give one happiness, but by its nature it is bound to produce unhappiness in the future, since it is prohibited by the Vedic injunctions. [But injury to the life of animals in the performance of sacrifices does not produce any sin, and must be regarded as being included within dharma .]

On the other hand, there are actions performed with the motive of injuring one’s enemies, which are not commanded by the Vedas, but the methods of whose performance are described in the Vedas only in the case of those who are actuated by such bad motives: these actions alone are called adharma. Thus not all injury to life is regarded as sinful, but only such as is prohibited by the Vedas: whereas those injuries that are recommended by the Vedas are not to be regarded as sin (adharma) but as virtue (dharma). By nature there are certain powers abiding in certain substances, actions or qualities which make them sinful or virtuous, but which are sinful and which can only be known by the dictates of the scriptures[5]. Dharma and adharma are thus objective characters of things, actions, etc., the nature of which is only revealed by the scriptures. It has already been noted above that Prabhākara gave an entirely different meaning of dharma. With him dharma means the transcendental product (apūrva) of the performance of Vedic rituals which remains in existence long after the action is completed and produces the proper good and bad effects at the proper time[6].

The smṛti literature is supposed to have the Vedas as its sources, and therefore it is to be regarded as authoritative; even when its contents cannot be traced in the Vedas it is inferred that such Vedic texts must have existed[7]. It is only when the smṛti is directly contradicted by the Vedas in any particular injunction or statement of fact that the former is to be regarded as invalid. The smṛti works are therefore generally regarded as a continuation of the Vedas, though as a matter of fact the smṛti works, written at different times at a later age, introduce many new concepts and many new ideals; in some of the smṛtis, however, the teachings of the Purāṇas and Smṛtis are regarded as possessing a lower status than those of the Vedas[8]. On the relation of the Smṛtis and the Vedas there are at least two different views. The first view is that, if the Smṛtis come into conflict with the Vedas, then the smṛti texts should be so interpreted as to agree with the purport of the Vedic texts; and, if that is not possible, then the smṛti texts should be regarded as invalid. Others hold that the conflicting smṛti text should be regarded as invalid. Mitra Miśra, commenting on the above two views of the Śavara and bhaṭṭa schools, says that, on the first view, it may be suspected that the author of the conflicting smṛti texts is not free from errors, and as such even those non-conflicting smṛti texts which cannot be traced in the Vedas may be doubted as erroneous. On the second view, however, smṛti is regarded as valid, since no one can guarantee that the non-conflicting texts which are not traceable to the Vedas are really non-existent in the Vedas. Even in the case of irreconcilably conflicting texts, the smṛti directions, though in conflict with the Vedic ones, may be regarded as optionally valid[9]. The Vedic idea of dharma excludes from its concept all that can be known to be beneficial, to the performer or to others, through experience or observation; it restricts itself wholly to those ritualistic actions, the good effects of which cannot be known by experience, but can only be known through Vedic commands[10]. Thus the digging of wells, etc., is directly known by experience to be of public good (paropakārāya) and therefore is not dharma. Thus nothing that is dṛṣṭārtha, i.e. no action, the beneficial effects of which may be known through experience, can be called dharma. The Aṅgiraḥ smṛti echoes this idea when it says that, excepting efforts for attaining self-knowledge, whatever one does out of his own personal desire or wish is like child’s play and unnecessary[11].

Many of the important Smṛtis however seem to extend the limits of the concept of dharma much further than the pure Vedic commands. As Manu’s work is based entirely on the purport of the Vedas, he is regarded as the greatest of all smṛti writers; whatever smṛti is in conflict with Manu’s writings is invalid[12]. Manu defines dharma as that which is always followed by the learned who are devoid of attachment and antipathy, and that to which the heart assents[13]. In another place Manu says that dharma is of four kinds; the observance of the Vedic injunctions, of the injunctions of smṛti, the following of the customary practices of good people, and the performance of such actions as may produce mental satisfaction (ātmanas tustiḥ) to the performer[14]. But the commentators are very unwilling to admit any such extension of the content and meaning of dharma. Thus Medhātithi (9th century), one of the oldest commentators, remarks that dharma as following the Vedic injunctions is beginningless; only the Vedic scholars can be said to know dharma, and it is impossible that there should be other sources from which the nature of dharma could be known. Other customs and habits and disciplines of life which pass as religious practices are introduced by ignorant persons of bad character (mūrkha-duḥśīla-puruṣa-pravarttitaḥ): they remain in fashion for a time and then die out. Such religious practices are often adopted out of greed (lobhān mantra-tantrādiṣu pravarttate)[15]. The wise and the good are only those who know the injunctions of the Vedas, who carry them into practice out of reverence for the law, and who are not led astray into following non-Vedic practices out of greed or antipathy to others. And, though a man might be tempted in his mind to perform many actions for his sense-gfatification, real contentment of the heart can come only through the performance of Vedic deeds[16]. Consistently with his own mode of interpretation Medhātithi discards not only the Buddhists and the Jains as being outside the true Vedic dharma, but also the followers of Pañcarātra (i.e. the Bhāgavatas) and the Pāśupatas as well, who believed in the authority of the authors of these systems and in the greatness of particular gods of their own choice. He held that their teachings are directly contrary to the mandates of the Vedas: and as an illustration he points out that the Bhāgavatas considered all kinds of injury to living beings to be sinful, which directly contradicts the Vedic injunction to sacrifice animals at particular sacrifices. Injury to living beings is not in itself sinful: only such injury is sinful as is prohibited by the Vedic injunctions. So the customs and practices of all systems of religion which are not based on the teachings of the Vedas are to be discarded as not conforming to dharma. In interpreting the phrase smṛti-śīle ca tad-vidām, Medhātithi says that the word śīla (which is ordinarily translated as “character”) is to be taken here to mean that concentration which enables the mind to remember the right purports of the Vedic injunctions[17]. By customary duties (ācāra) Medhātithi means only such duties as are currently practised by those who strictly follow the Vedic duties, but regarding which no Vedic or smṛti texts are available. He supposes that minor auspices and other rituals which are ordinarily performed by the people of the Vedic circle have also ultimately originated from the Vedic injunctions. Similarly it is only the feeling of self-contentment of those persons who are habituated to work in accordance with the Vedas that can be regarded as indicating the path of dharma. It simply means that the instinctive inclination of the true adherents of the Vedas may be relied on as indicating that those actions to which their minds are inclined must be consistent with the Vedic injunctions, and must therefore conform to dharma. Other commentators however take a more liberal view of the meaning of the words śīla, ātmanas tuṣṭi and hṛdayeṇa abhyanujñāta. Thus Govindarāja explains the last phrase as meaning “absence of doubt” (antaḥkaraṇa-cikitsā-śūnya), and Nārāyaṇa goes so far as to say that, unless the heart approves of the action, it cannot be right: Rāmānanda says that, when there is any doubt regarding two conflicting texts, one should act in a way that satisfies his own mind. The word śīla has been interpreted as “character” (vṛtta or caritra) by Rāmānanda in his Manvartha-candrikā and as dissociation of attachment and antipathy by Govindarāja: Kullūka takes it according to Hārīta’s definition of śīla as involving the qualities of non-injury to others, absence of jealousy, mildness, friendliness, gratefulness, mercy, peace, etc. Self-satisfaction can in practice discern the nature of dharma, but only when there are no specified texts to determine it. Thus, though the other later commentators are slightly more liberal than Medhātithi, they all seem to interpret the slight concession that Manu had seemed to make to right character and self-contentment or conscience as constituent elements of dharma, more or less on Medhātithi’s line, as meaning nothing more than loyalty to scriptural injunctions.

It has been pointed out that Medhātithi definitely ruled out the Pañcarātra and the Pāśupata systems as heretical and therefore invalid for inculcating the nature of dharma. But in later times these too came to be regarded as Vedic schools and therefore their instructions also were regarded as so authoritative that they could not be challenged on rational grounds[18].

It is however a relief to find that in some of the later Smṛtis the notion of dharma was extended to morality in general and to some of the cardinal virtues.

Thus Bṛhaspati counts

  • kindness (dayā, meaning a feeling of duty to save a friend or foe from troubles),
  • patience (kṣamā, meaning fortitude in all kinds of difficulty),
  • the qualities of appreciating others’ virtues and absence of elation at others’ faults (anasūyā),
  • purity (śauca, meaning avoidance of vices, association with the good and strict adherence to one’s caste duties),
  • avoidance of vigorous asceticism (sannyāsa),
  • performance of approved actions and avoidance of disapproved ones (maṅgala),
  • regular charity even from small resources (akārpaṇya),
  • contentment with what little one may have and want of jealousy at others’ prosperity (aspṛhā),

as constituting the universal dharma for all[19].

  • Viṣṇu counts patience (kṣamā),
  • truthfulness for the good of all beings (satya),
  • mind-control (dama),
  • purity (śauca as defined above),
  • making of gifts (dāna),
  • sense-control (indriya-saṃyama),
  • noninjury (ahiṃsā),
  • proper attendance to teachers (guru-śuśrūṣā),
  • pilgrimage, kindness (dayā),
  • straightforwardness (ārjava),
  • want of covetousness,
  • adoration of gods and Brahmins,

as constituting universal dharma.

Devala considers

  • purity (śauca),
  • gifts (dāna),
  • asceticism of the body (tapas),
  • faith (śraddhā),
  • attendance to teachers (guru-sevā),
  • patience (kṣamā),
  • mercifulness in the sense of pity for others’ sufferings,
  • showing friendliness as if these were one’s own (dayā),
  • acquirement of knowledge, Vedic or non-Vedic (vijñāna),
  • mind-control and body-control (vinaya),
  • truthfulness (satya),

as constituting the totality of all dharmas (dharma-samuccaya).

Yājñavalkya speaks of

  • ahiṃsā,
  • satya,
  • asteya (avoidance of stealing),
  • śauca,
  • indriya-nigraha (sense-control),
  • dāna,
  • dama,
  • dayā,
  • and kṣānti

as constituting universal dharma for all.

The Mahābhārata counts

  • truthfulness (satya),
  • steadiness in one’s caste duties (tapas as sva-dharma-vartitvd),
  • purity (śauca),
  • contentment, meaning sex-restriction to one’s own wife and also cessation from sense-attractions (viṣaya-tyāga),
  • shame at the commission of evil deeds (hrī),
  • patience as capacity in bearing hardships (kṣamā),
  • evenness of mind (ārjava),
  • philosophic knowledge of reality (jñāna),
  • peace of mind (śama as citta-praśāntatā),
  • desire to do good to others (dayā),
  • meditation, meaning withdrawal of the mind from all sense objects (dhyāna as nirviṣaya),
  • as universal dharmas.

Yājñavalkya says that the highest of all dharmas is selfknowledge through yoga.

These universal dharmas are to be distinguished from the special dharmas of the different castes, of the different stages of life (āśrama), or under different conditions. We have thus three stages in the development of the concept of dharma, i.e. dharma as the duty of following the Vedic injunctions, dharma as moral virtues of non-injury, truthfulness, self-control etc., dharma as selfknowledge through yoga.

But the Bhāgavata presents a new aspect of the notion of dharma. Dharma according to the Bhāgavata consists in the worship of God without any ulterior motive—a worship performed with a perfect sincerity of heart by men who are kindly disposed towards all, and who have freed themselves from all feelings of jealousy. This worship involves the knowledge of the absolute, as a natural consequence of the realization of the worshipfulness of the spirit, and naturally leads to supreme bliss[20]. The passage under discussion does not directly refer to the worship of God as a characteristic of the definition of dharma as interpreted by Śrīdhara[21]. The dharma consists of absolute sincerity—absolute cessation of the spirit from all motives, pretensions and extraneous associations of every description: and it is assumed that, when the spirit is freed from all such extraneous impurities, the natural condition of the spirit is its natural dharma. This dharma is therefore not a thing that is to be attained or achieved as an external acquirement, but it is man’s own nature, which manifests itself as soon as the impurities are removed. The fundamental condition of dharma is not therefore something positive but negative, consisting of the dissociation (projjhita) of extraneous elements (kitava). For, as soon as the extraneous elements are wiped out, the spirit shows itself in its own true nature, and then its relation to absolute truth and absolute good is self-evident: the normal realization of this relationship is what is called dharma or worship of God, or what Śrīdhara calls the tender worshipfulness towards God. The primary qualifications needed for a person to make a start towards a true realization of the nature of dharma in himself are, that he should have no jealousy towards others, and that he should have a natural feeling of friendliness towards all beings. The implications of this concept of dharma in the Bhāgavata, which breaks new ground in the history of the development of the notion of dharma in Indian Philosophy, are many, and an attempt will be made in the subsequent sections to elucidate them. That this dissociation from all extraneous elements ultimately means motiveless and natural flow of devotion to God by which the spirit attains supreme contentment, and that it is supreme dharma, is very definitely stated in I. 2. 6: If anything which does not produce devotion to God can be called dharma, such a dharma is mere fruitless labour[22]. For the fruits of dharma as defined by the Vedic injunctions may lead only to pleasurable consequences which are transitory. The real dharma is that which through devotion to God leads ultimately to self-knowledge, and as such dharma cannot be identified with mere gain or fulfilment of desires. Thus dharma as supreme devotion to God is superior to the Vedic definition of dharma, which can produce only sense-gratification of various kinds.

Footnotes and references:


athāto dharma-jijñāsā.
I. 1. 1.
codanā-lakṣano’rtho dharmaḥ.
I. 1.2.


ya eva śreyas-karaḥ, sa eva dharma-śabdena ucyate; katham avagamyatām; yo hi yāgam anutiṣṭhati, taṃ dhārmika iti samācakṣate; yaśca yasya kartā sa tena vyapadiśyate; yathā pāvakaḥ, lāvaka iti. tena yaḥ puruṣaṃ niḥśreyasena saṃyunakti, sa dharma-śabdena ucyate...ko’rthaḥ—yo niḥśreyasāya jyotiṣṭomādiḥ. ko’narthaḥyaḥ pratyavāyāyaḥ.
on Mīmāṃsā-sūtra, I. i. 2.

Prabhākara however gives a different interpretation of this rule, and suggests that it means that every mandate of the Vedas is always binding, and is called dharma even when by following it we may be led to actions which are injurious to other people:

tataḥ sarvasya vedārthasya kcryatvam arthatvaṃ ca vidhīyata iti śyenādi-niyogānām api arthatvaṃ syāt.
p. 17, Nirnaya-sāgara Press, Bombay, 1915.

Kumārila, further interpreting it, says that an action (performed according to the Vedic commands) which produces happiness and does not immediately or remotely produce unhappiness is called dharma.


phalaṃ tāvad adharmo’sya śyenādeḥ sampradhāryate
yadā yeneṣṭa-siddhiḥ syād anuṣṭhānānubandhinī
tasya dharmatvam ucyeta tataḥ śyenādi-varjanam
yadā tu codanā-gamyaḥ kāryākāryānapekṣayā
dharmaḥ prīti-nimittaṃ syāt tadā śyene’pi dharmatā
yadā tvaprīti-hetur yaḥ sākṣād vyavahito’pi vā
so’ dharmaś codanātaḥ syāt tadā śyene’py adharmatā.
on sūtra 2, śloka 270-273.


dravya-kriyā-guṇādīnāṃ dharmatvaṃ sthapayiṣyate
teṣām aindriyakatve’pi na tādrūpyeṇa dharmatā
śreyaḥ-sādhanatā hy eṣāṃ nityaṃ vedāt pratīyate
tādrūpyeṇa ca dharmatvaṃ tasmān nendriya-gocaraḥ.
, sūtra 2. 13, 14.


dharmādharmārthibhir nityaṃ mṛgyan vidhi-mṣedhakan
kvacid asyā niṣiddhatvāc chaktiḥ śāstreṇa bodhitā...
vidyamānā hi kathyante śaktayo dravya-karmaṇām
tad eva cedaṃ karmeti śāstram evānudhāvatā.
240, 251.


na hi jyotiṣṭomādi-yāgasyāpi dharmatvam asti. apurvasya dharmatvā-bhyupagamāt.
p. 33, Bombay, 1915.


virodhe tvanapekṣyaṃ syād asati hyanumānam.
I. 3. 3.


ataḥ sa paramo dharmo yo vedād avagamyate
avaraḥ sa tu vijñeyo yah purāṇādiṣu smṛtaḥ
tathā ca vaidiko dharmo mukhya utkrṣṭatvāt, smārtaḥ anukalpaḥ apakṛṣṭatvāt.
as quoted in Vīramitrodaya-paribhāṣāprakāśa, p. 29.


See Vīramitrodaya, Vol. I, pp. 28, 29.


tathā pratyupasthita-niyamānām ācārāṇāṃ dṛṣṭārthatvād eva prāmāṇyam...
prapās taḍāgāni ca paropakārāya na dharmāya ity evā’vagamyate.
on Mīmāṃsā-sūtra, I. 3. 2.


svābhiprāya-kṛtaṃ karma yatkiṃcij jñāna-varjitam
krīḍā-karmeva bālānāṃ tat-sarvaṃ niṣ-prayojanam.
p. 11.


vedārthopanibandhṛtvāt prādhānyaṃ hi manoḥ smṛtam
manvartha-viparītā tu yā smṛtiḥ sā na praśaṣyate.

      Bṛhaspati quoted in Vīramitrodaya, ibid. p. 27.


vidvadbhiḥ sevitaḥ sadbhir nityam adveṣa-rāgibhiḥ
hṛdayenābhyarmjñāto yo dharmas taṃ nibodhata.
II. 1.


vedo’khilo dharma-mūlaṃ smṛti-śīle ca tadvidām
ācāraś caiva sādhūnām ātmanas tuṣṭir eva ca.
11. 6.


Medhātithi says that such practices as those of besmearing the body with ashes, carrying human skulls, going about naked or wearing yellow robes, are adopted by worthless people as a means of living. Ibid. II. 1


In interpreting the meaning of the word hṛdaya (heart) in the phrase hṛdayena abhyanujñāta Medhātithi says that the word hṛdaya may mean “mind” (manas, antar-hṛdaya-varttīni buddhyādi-tattvām); on this supposition he would hold that contentment of mind could only come through following the Vedic courses of duties. But, dissatisfied apparently with this meaning, he thinks that hṛdaya might also mean the memorized content of the Vedas (hṛdayaṃ vedaḥ, sa hy adhīto bhāvanā-rūpeṇa hṛdaya-sthito hṛdayam). This seems to mean that a Vedic scholar is instinctively, as it were, led to actions which are virtuous, because in choosing his course of conduct he is unconsciously guided by his Vedic studies. A man may be prompted to action by his own inclination, by the example of great men, or by the commands of the Vedas; but in whichever way he may be so prompted, if his actions are to conform to dharma, they must ultimately conform to Vedic courses of duties.


samādhiḥ śīlam ucyate...yac cetaso’nya-viṣaya-vyākṣepa-parihāreṇa śāstrārtha-nirūpaṇa-pravaṇatā tac chīlam ucyate.
      Medhātithi’s commentary, II. 6.


Thus Yogi-yājñavalkya says:

Sāṃkhyaṃ yogaḥ pañca-rātraṃ vedāḥ pāśupataṃ tathā ati-pramāṇānyetāni hetubhir na virodhayet,

quoted in Vīramitrodaya, p. 20, but not found in the printed text, Bombay. This Yogi-yājñavalkya is a work on yoga and the other a work on smṛti, and it is the former text that has been printed. The present writer has no knowledge whether the latter text has been published anywhere.

Viṣṇudharmottara also speaks of Pañcarātra and Pāśupata as means of enquiry into Brahman:

sāṃkhyaṃ yogaḥ pañcarātraṃ vedāḥ pāśupataṃ
tathā kṛtānta-pañcakaṃ viddhi brahmaṇaḥ parimārgaṇe.
p. 22.

But Mitra Miśra on the same page distinguishes between Pāśupata as a Vedic āgama and as a non-Vedic āgama. Similarly there was a Vedic and non-Vedic Pañcarātra too. Ibid. p. 23.


Ibid. pp. 32-4.


Bhāgavata-purāṇa, I. 1. 2, interpreted according to Śrīdhara’s exposition.


komalam īśvarārādhana-lakṣaṇo dharmo nirūpyate. Śrīdhara’s comment on the above passage.


Ibid. I. 2. 7

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